Telecommuting Takes Flight at JetBlue

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When you call to make a flight reservation with JetBlue Airlines, you just might be talking to someone in their bunny slippers.

No, they're not getting carried away with casual Friday. Eighty percent of JetBlue's reservation agents work from home. And as the airline just passed its six-year anniversary of allowing its agents to telecommute, the company reports that the move has not only saved them money and expensive office space... it's also increased productivity.

And, according to JetBlue, workers there say they like skipping the commute in to the office, the flexibility of being at home... and the option of working in their pajamas.

''We initiated our at-home program when we first started the airline,'' says Margot Miller, manager of reservations at JetBlue, which is based in Salt Lake City, Utah. ''Having come from a call center environment prior to my JetBlue experience, people tend to be a little more productive in their own environment... and most people like to work at home because it saves time and gas, and it's easier on their families.''

And it's been a popular initiative.

Six year ago, when the company first got off the ground and telecommuting was first offered to the reservation agents, JetBlue had 40 agents, seven supervisors and four support staff people. Today, there are 1,500 agents and 1,200 of them have opted to telecommute.

Having so many workers telecommuting gives the company the flexibility it needs to compete in what can be a turbulent industry. Miller says it's much easier to ask workers to jump on their computers when the company needs extra agents manning the phones and dealing with a flood of customer calls than it would be to ask them to jump in their cars and head out to the office.

''If there's a high call volume, we do email out and ask people to jump on and help us with overtime,'' says Miller. ''And if calls are low, we do email out and let some people sign off for voluntary time off... The majority of them really love this arrangement.'' And so far, so does JetBlue.

Joe Wilcox, an analyst with JupiterResearch, an industry analyst firm, says JetBlue should have a lot to be happy about, calling telecommuting a smart way to do business.

''There are a lot of advantages to having employees work at home,'' says Wilcox, who adds that a recent JupiterResearch survey showed that 24 percent of U.S. workers telecommute at least part of the time. ''From the company's perspective it's an opportunity to eliminate real estate costs and all the costs associated with maintaining an office.''

And while he says JetBlue is out ahead of the curve when it comes to staffing issues and telecommuting, this is a trend that has been long in coming.

''Things have been changing for a long time. It just hasn't necessarily been obvious,'' says Wilcox. ''Look back 15 years. People's roles were defined by where they worked. They clocked in and clocked out and that was their role. Then they went home and that was their home role. Over the last five years, location no longer defines the role. People have laptops. They don't have to work in the office... Information is on PDAs and cellphones, and Blackberries and home PCs. The natural extension of all this technology is the commingling of roles.''

Gartner, Inc., an industry analyst firm, reports that this commingling of roles will continue to increase this year.

A January report out of Gartner shows that analysts there expect telecommuting, buoyed by concerns about fuel consumption and the growing availability of broadband Internet access at home, will increase by 9 percent this year. That growth rate is predicted to be 8 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Out of Sight, Out of Control?

Some analysts say this growth rate might be held back by managers' fears that employees won't be focused on getting their work done if they're not where a manager can keep an eye on them. If employees are working at home, how does management know they're not watching Oprah or sipping cocktails on the deck instead of getting their work done?

At JetBlue, that's not a concern, says Miller. They have policies and technology in place to make sure of it.

''We can always assess what a home agent is doing at any particular time,'' says Miller, noting that they use a system called CenterView, which allows managers to log in and see what each agent is doing at any particular time. ''We really stress customer service more than booking numbers. However long it takes to service a call is fine. Obviously, we do have 'talk time' goals in place but our real push is on customer service. Supervisors can listen in to monitor calls and give coaching and advise on how to do things more efficiently. They're in constant communication via email They also use a software program to evaluate when someone is in the system taking calls or they're out. There's no issue there at all.''

And there shouldn't be with the technology that's available today, says Dave Foster, a research analyst with the Aberdeen Group, which is based out of Boston. ''If they have well-defined deliverables and timeframes, then their bosses shouldn't care where they're working,'' he says. ''There's technology to keep track of them... but it really shouldn't matter if they have well-defined deliverables. If they don't, then maybe they should be worried that their people are staying busy.

And Foster agrees with JetBlue's Miller that some basic security measures should protect the company's information that is moving back and forth between home offices and the central office in Salt Lake.

Miller says every agent is set up with a firewall in their home office that adds to the security they run back at the support center. The agents set up their own security, as well as everything else to do with their home system. And that adds up to a nice cost savings for JetBlue.

''They get a six-week nesting period here in the support center and then they go home,'' says Miller. ''We instruct them on how to install their equipment. They do need to have another telephone line installed and they pay for that. We pay them a $25 monthly service fee for that other line. We provide all the equipment -- a PC and monitor, access to the JetBlue reservation system and a few applications.''

Right now, JetBlue agents are using dial-up connections, but they'll be getting broadband services later this year.

And to make sure that employees can get into the office in a timely manner if their home system goes down, JetBlue mandates that all of their telecommuting reservation agents live within 40 miles of the support center in Salt Lake. ''One of the requirements is if you have technical difficulties, you have to call in and then be in the center within an hour to finish your shift,'' says Miller, adding that dealing with technical problems is a challenge for the company's IT department. ''We're looking into expanding that area a bit to give us a greater pool of people to grow with.''

To keep computers patched and serviced, JetBlue requires telecommuters to bring their machines in every three months when they come in for training. Once they have broadband in place, IT will be able to push a lot of updates out to the remote machines.

Foster says this kind of flexible work arrangement is opening up a whole new pool of available talent for the company. ''They might be attracting people who might not want to go to an office -- a whole new market of people who would like to telecommute.''

And Miller says that's exactly what's happening.

''It was a popular and successful program because we had a lot of mothers who wanted to get back in the workforce but didn't particularly want to leave home,'' she adds. ''It's really worked for us.''

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